What it means to be Malaysian

The diversity of race and culture is what makes Malaysia special and the ordinary folk feel recent controversial events do not reflect the true Malaysian story.


A foreigner reading the local news of late would be left with the impression that Malaysians were an unhappy lot – paranoid that their respective communities were under threat and quick to provoke or threaten other Malaysians in the name of their race or personal beliefs.

There are reports of Malay rights groups claiming that Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia containing the word “Allah” are a threat to Islam, despite the use of the word by Malaysians of indigenous descent – or Christian Bumiputeras – for more than a century.

Islamist groups, meanwhile, have made inflammatory remarks, including labelling Malaysians of Chinese descent “trespassers” and claiming non-Muslims wanted to remove Malay rights and destroy the sovereignty of Malaysia and Islam.

News of a Taoist funeral and a Hindu wedding being disrupted within the same week by Islamic religious enforcement officers, who claimed they were defending Islam by taking away the body of a Chinese and detaining the Hindu bride, respectively, have left many angry and bewildered that such incidents are occurring in a modern, multicultural society. That both incidents happened in states ruled by the federal opposition, Pakatan Rakyat, could also be a mere coincidence.

Then there are the bitter custody battles between mixed-faith couples into which the police have waded by refusing to act on court orders that favoured the non-Muslim spouse, leaving the spouses bereft of justice and opening up room for arguments whether civil or religious courts should have the last say on such matters.

A long-standing row between Muslims and Christians over the use of the word “Allah” has not ended despite the highest court upholding a ban on the Church’s use of the word in one of its publications.

Yesterday, a bloodied severed cow’s head was found on the doorstep of a Penang state lawmaker, who had angered many from the federal ruling party when he said “Umno celaka” (Umno be damned) in the state legislative assembly.

The incident was roundly condemned by politicians from both sides of the divide, and was a reminder to ordinary folk that peace and harmony meant acceptance and tolerance.

Throughout all this, the spectre of May 13 is constantly raised – not only as a reminder of what could happen to Malaysia should citizens turn on one another, but a threat used by one racial community to quell another.

But it would be a mistake to stereotype all Malaysians based on what a few individuals, claiming to be their community’s representatives, say.

To prove this, The Malaysian Insider took to the streets recently to ask people from various backgrounds one question: “What does it mean to be Malaysian?”

These are their responses.


“Being Malaysian for me is about shared values, shared cultures and shared hopes and dreams. Above all, it’s about mutual respect. It’s about upholding the right of every individual to the rights enshrined in the Constitution. It’s about caring for the marginalised and making sure minority rights are not forsaken.

“It’s about being civilised and living in peace and harmony with one another. It’s about being fair and honest and knowing the institutions will be just to all regardless of race and religion.

“I am proud of being a Malaysian. And because of that I will, as a Malaysian, resist all efforts to divide, oppress, cheat and victimise others because that is not Malaysian.”

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan
former Bersih co-chairperson, former Bar Council president, Kuala Lumpur



“Being a Malaysian means to love this country and to consider yourself as a Malaysian, not Chinese Malaysian, Indian Malaysian or Malay Malaysian. We are all Malaysians and we should be proud to live in one country where in spite of the diversity, we are still one nation. And this has to be brought in expression through our words, deeds and action.”

Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa
MP for Parit Buntar, Perak, and PAS central committee member



“Being a Malaysian is about having the spirit of ‘give and take’ to ensure harmony. Not to harp on issues that can break relationships between communities and races. There can be disagreements, but these can be resolved through discussions.

“There is already a social contract which exists in the Federal Constitution, and we need to respect the Constitution. We don’t need to change the Constitution just because we feel it’s unfair.

“We should be together, in times of difficulty and ease, in order to build this nation and move forward.”

Tan Sri Musa Hassan
former inspector-general of police, Kuala Lumpur



“It means being a part of a country that celebrates its diversity and treats its citizens with equality. There should be no place for racial discrimination.

“That there will be growing space and respect and understanding among its peoples, cultures and religions. There is no place for religious bigotry.

“That we develop a spirituality of compassion in our various religious understandings, based on our inclusive approach in the expression of our religion.

“That we work together to transform our country into a modern progressive society that upholds the rule of law and defends human rights at all levels of social life.”

Reverend Dr Hermen Shastri
Secretary-General, Council of Churches Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur



“I am proud to be a member of a multiracial, multi-religious society that has reached a certain level of social cohesion. But we have to work harder to realise a higher level of unity, national integration, equality and prevent unfair discrimination.

“We need to enhance understanding and respect so that we can truly celebrate our concept of unity in diversity in the most harmonious way.”

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah
Chief executive officer, Global Movement of Moderates, and former deputy higher education minister, Kuala Lumpur



“Being a Malaysian means you belong to this country and you are part of it. I believe Malaysia can become better. It has to improve in areas like education for the good of future generations.

“It has to be better in safety and security… the police must work harder. It used to be safer and more peaceful years ago. There was less crime, not like today when we hear so much about robberies and snatch thefts. Even cow heads can turn up at people’s gates.”

Manjinder Singh, 64
businessman of Thai descent, Penang



“As Malaysians, we are so blessed with cultural diversity. Look at the types of delicious food we have. I made friends from different cultural backgrounds in school. We ‘lepak’ and ‘ponteng’ school… what did we not do together?

“But sometimes I am made to feel like I don’t belong to this country because of what some politicians and NGOs say, and the system, too.

“I believe to be a truly united nation, we must have equal and fair treatment for everyone in areas like education, the economy… no more Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras. We should not have a system that keeps on dividing us.”

Dalbinder Singh Gill, 24
law graduate, Penang



“I am a very patriotic person. Regardless what is happening with our government and the opposition, it doesn’t really affect me because I’ve got tonnes of Malay and Indian friends.

“And this is why I love being Malaysian. I love learning about the different people in Malaysia, their cultures. It is all about the races coming together as Malaysians.

“Whenever I meet people from other countries, I make sure I identify myself as a Malaysian first and not a Chinese.”

Oliver Chin, 28
assistant regional sales manager, Kuala Lumpur



“To me, being Malaysian is living together harmoniously in this blessed country. We have so many different races and cultures. We have lived in peace with one another all this time.

“We see a lot of wars and fights in other countries, such as Myanmar, where the Buddhists and Muslims are fighting with each other. But in Malaysia, we are still peaceful so we don’t want to be like that.”

Mohd Sofie Hussien, 38
businessman, Petaling Jaya



“Being a Malaysian gives a whole new meaning. This may sound ‘selekeh’ but we do live in a peaceful country. And we have a strong diversity in race, food especially, and culture.

“Even though we live in diversity in terms of culture, race and religion but we do embrace unity. I would say that it is a strong Malaysian trait because not many cultures enjoy what we have now.”

Farah Wahida, 31
banker and part-time student, Petaling Jaya



“It is tolerating one another. Accepting our differences. I guess we are more open nowadays in terms of racial integration, which is kind of cool.

“Our society is more open-minded and our thinking is different now. I am proud to be a Malaysian because of this.”

Dilpreet Kaur (right), 19
student, Kuala Lumpur



“We should be happy to be Malaysian because we have everything here. If you go to other countries, you will realise, nothing is like your own country.

“Because this is family, you have your whole family here. The Malays, Chinese, Indians, we are all good with one another and very friendly.

“We get to eat all kinds of food. You should enjoy it, you should be very thankful to be born in Malaysia.”

Sandra Vadivery, 40s
Kuala Lumpur



“To me, there are so many cultures and races in Malaysia. We should all be united instead of being divided and harping on racial issues, because Malaysia doesn’t belong to one kind of people.

“It doesn’t belong to the Malays, or the Chinese nor the Indians. Malaysia belongs to everyone.”

Ann Nur John, 22
bank customer service officer, Kuala Lumpur



“Being a Malaysian means peace, harmony and tolerance. We need one another… all the races. We need to be tolerant of what we may not like about the other because we are different.

“Malaysia is unique because of the different races. So being part of that is what makes me Malaysian.”

Meor Yusof Aziddin, 47
musician, teacher, writer, Kuala Lumpur



“To be a Malaysian, you get all the good s*** from the government if you get to lick their a**. You get more than you bargain, you get the BR1M, even if you vote for the opposition.”

Khatijah Abdullah, 56
caterer, Miri, Sarawak



“Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. Its people are of diverse races and it is where different cultures and cuisine used to blend perfectly. It is just unfortunate to be a Malaysian now and see politics destroying the unity and peace by divisive policies based on religion and race.”

Josh John, 51
retired administration manager, paralysed after being afflicted by a rare spinal nerve disorder, Kuching



“Malaysia no longer has the appeal it had 51 years ago. We shake hands in greeting, but with apprehension and a feeling of suspicion because of the growing issues with regards to race and religion.

“It’s not our leaders’ fault but that of a few extremists in our society.”

James Joshua Guang, 46
managing director of a logistics firm in Miri, Sarawak



“Being Malaysian is like having the four seasons. It’s cold, it’s hot, it’s dry and it’s pretty sometimes.”

Venni Samuel, 45,
media print ad specialist, Kuching, Sarawak



“Malaysians live in harmony despite having different cultural backgrounds. We can pray according to our different religions in peace… our houses of worship can even be next door to each other. During festive celebrations, we celebrate together.

“But some things are different. Why are we becoming extreme? Why do we take offence if someone else’s house of worship is built close to ours?

“This is not the Malaysian culture I grew up with when all children could play and study together without caring about race.

“This nation was built on the friendship and comradeship of the three major races. That was how we got our independence.

“We should not politicise race. I dream that one day my children will see a Malaysia where all Malaysians can live in unity, and be judged based on merit.”

Wilson Moorthy, 47
real estate agent, Penang

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